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Smell-O-Vision 2.0: Faster than the speed of smell

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I often spend my free moments looking at recipes for involved dishes with pretty, hi-resolution photos in the hope that someday I will have the time to prepare them, the money to buy fancy new kitchen equipment and live in a place with more than a foot and a half of counter space. It was in pursuit of this all together fantastical and unrealistic future-hobby that I discovered how limited the sensory stimulus of modern technology truly is. For example, learning that Tarragon is one of the four Fine Herbs of French cooking and is used primarily with fish and chicken dishes gives me very little understanding of what it smells like or why it belongs in a pasta dish that incidentally contains neither fish nor chicken. What if our digital reference libraries contained not just the visual and auditory data that shapes how we see and hear the world, but the olfaction data that shapes how we smell it as well?

The idea of incorporating the sense of smell into our traditional visual and auditory media is certainly not a new one. In fact, film makers tried to stimulate their audience’s noses well before they attempted wide spread stimulation of their ears. A 1906 newsreel of the Rose Parade was set to rose oil and a fan to give the audience the olfactory sensation of being in Pasadena for the parade, more than 20 years before the first full length feature sound film. But as we all know, what would come to be known variously as Smell-O-Vision, Smell-O-Rama and (my favorite) AromaRama quite quickly lost out to the Talkie. And it wasn’t even close.

Smell films just had too many technical hurdles to overcome. Sound travels at a constant speed (more or less) and is not significantly slower that the speed of light to cause any noticeable delay between the picture and the audio. Unfortunately for pioneers of Smell-O-Vision, there is no comparable Speed of Smell (and what a pity that is for our childish sense of potty humor). As you can imagine, trying to properly sync up the detection of a particular smell that has been released into the air with the correct cue in a movie, such that everyone smells it at just the right time, is nigh impossible. Human beings are capable of detecting over 10,000 scents making it equally impossible to mix up and deliver enough smells for it to be a constant part of the experience, making it even gimmickier than 3-D.

But I believe that the time has come to start considering how all smells can be digitized, categorized and made available on demand. Imagine how useful it would have been to look up a description of Tarragon online and in addition to discovering such useful information as its history in fine French cuisine and its scientific name to, you know, get some idea of what it might actually taste like in my food. With advances in our understanding of the olfactory system and the human genome the limitations of traditional Smell-O-Vision can be overcome, making it less slightly farfetched than it might seem.

A number of entrepreneurs have been trying to digitize scent, but it’s essentially an update of the same process from 1906. In most designs a digital signal is sent to a bay of scent cards, heating the right combination of essential smells (there are usually over 100 of these). A fan blows air across the scent cards wafting the smell throughout the room. While this might be able to reproduce more smells and better synchronized to the events on screen, it doesn’t fully overcome the limitations imposed by trying to physically recreate a scent. It certainly would not be appropriate for a public space, at least until we invent ear phones for our noses (“nose-phones”?).

The key then, is to by-pass the physical part of scent altogether. While researchers are still discovering the complexities of the olfactory system, we do know that it made up of a network of receptor neurons that line the mucus membrane of the nasal passage. Each neuron is calibrated to detect a specific profile of odor molecule. The brain interprets the combination of signals sent from these receptors to identify what it is we are smelling. By stimulating the right combination of olfactory receptors, then, one could theoretically fool the brain into detecting a scent that is not physically present.

The application would certainly not be limited to combating my own ignorance of culinary herbs. Imagine having the power to not only capture images, video and audio with our mobile devices, but being able to capture scent as well. These “smell-o-graphs” would let you recommend a new restaurant to a friend not just by word-of-mouth, but by smell-of-nose too. Shopping online for a new designer fragrance would no longer be a leap of faith. We could even concoct new smells that don’t even exist in the natural world, unlocking a new realm of creativity for our most innovative fine artists.

Obviously the technical challenges would be enormous. Everything from mapping the olfactory genes (there are over 900), to cataloging the odor molecules of different physical objects to the technology to actually transmit these signals to the brain would be a tremendous undertaking in its own right. None the less, our understanding of olfaction has made such a system at least conceivable, forcing us to ponder “what if” the entire range of human smell was indexed and accessible straight from the internet into our brains.

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March 30th, 2011 at 12:42 pm

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